There’s no success quite like a good failure

I started thinking about failure, within my work as a multimedia designer, because of my father-in-law. He’s a heart surgeon and – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – if he fails at his work, people really do die. In his day he was one of the most brilliant surgeons in the world. He got that good by being brilliant at many aspects of his profession, not least of which was not failing. Ever.

His world is well summed up by the famous words of Gene Kranz, the lead flight director of Apollo 13. “Failure is not an option,” he told his team. Because if their mission did fail, it would mean the crew would never return to Earth. Failure for Apollo 13 was huge.

By contrast, we have Samuel Beckett’s equally well-known line: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This is the designer’s failure. It’s the perfect get-out clause. We think: “I failed, but that’s okay – next time I’ll fail better. This failure is tiny. Insignificant. It’s just one of many, on a poetic journey of failures.”

Failures are there to be learnt from. But, in design, how often do we actually talk about them? We tend to just keep quiet, hope that nobody noticed and move onto the next thing. Thinking about this discrepancy, I wondered to myself: “Why, if a surgeon can’t get away with it on their journey towards being brilliant surgeons, can we as designers?” I then asked: “What if we took all of our failures as seriously as surgeons do, what could we learn? And could we even be – dare I say it – better designers as a result?”

So I decided to give this new idea a go. I faced up to my own failures. First, I thought about the Christmas catalogue I’d designed for a high street jewellers. Acres of white space. Exquisite, minimal layouts. Okay, you couldn’t really see the products, but the pages looked beautiful. What I was forgetting about were the tens of thousands of people pushing their way down Oxford Street in search of the perfect gift for a sister, mother or son. They didn’t want a design experience. They wanted a catalogue. So in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas rush, our work of art sold approximately nothing. All our work on it was useless.

Then there were the delightful little guidelines books we wrote for the Post Office. In our fit of passion to do justice to this historic institution at the heart of our communities, we went deep – way too deep. We were so absorbed in trying to create the perfect expression of what the Post Office means for us all that we didn’t realise that months had passed, and the world had moved on. We were so slow that the Post Office had even got themselves a new logo while we stroked our chins. The real world wouldn’t wait for our dreaming. So all of our passion for the work got us precisely nowhere.

And then there are the projects where it seems like everything is a failure. The cursed ones. You feel it in your bones right from the very outset, and yet you plough on with them regardless. One of mine was the worst annual report in the world. Where shall I start to explain this disaster? I never nailed a theme for it, so it wandered nowhere, saying nothing. I’d picked totally the wrong photographer for what was needed for the job and the poor guy had to struggle on against his skills, with predictably disastrous results. I got all of the backgrounds wrong and decided to Photoshop nice windows in behind everyone. Never, ever try this, please. They looked so bad that thinking about them still makes my eyes water.

I dreaded presenting it to my now moany, negative clients, and I’m quite sure they dreaded seeing me attempt to flog it with my false cheery optimism. We were all glad when it was over, and the result was rubbish. But that’s the saddest thing: it was really rubbish. It ended up being a document so meaningless and boring that it would be just thrown away.

Until I embarked on this honest exploration of my failures, I’d never dared to look back in that way. But believe me, it has been a tonic. From these, and a few other failures, I’ve learnt a lot about what could go wrong. And, more importantly, I’ve learnt why. Maybe, just maybe, it will make me a better designer.

I recommend giving this brutal self-evaluation a try. Because I think that just because nobody dies, it doesn’t mean we can get away with murder.

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